All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us”– J.R.R. Tolkein

Rich or poor, young or old, there is one thing that all people have in common every day – time (1,440 minutes to be exact). Time is the great equalizer. If you want to make a difference at work or in life, the only real question is how to spend your time. 

The challenge is that there are significant forces that can throw you off course by having you spend time on tasks that don’t impact things that are important to you. It is a constant battle, but if you build the right skills and habits, you can significantly increase the amount of time that you spend the way you want. 

Here are some of my favorite tips and techniques for prioritizing and being productive. 

Pure Focus: The ONE Thing by Gary Keller

If you don’t know what you want to accomplish, spend some time thinking about that first. It can be a life goal, a career goal, or even a goal for this week. The more important it is and the more you want it, the easier it will be to cut away the rest of the clutter and keep your focus on that item. 

Once you have it in mind, ask yourself “What is the ONE thing that I can do that will make everything else easier or unnecessary?”

Then do that thing above all others until it is done. Then move on to the next one.

This is the simplest method, but also the hardest, as it requires an iron discipline to say no to the million other things that demand your time. You should at least give it a try!

Multiple Focuses: How to sort what you’ve got on your plate now

Most of us will find the ONE Thing approach a little too intense, as we have several things on which we need to focus. However, I think it’s a valuable, if not quite attainable, philosophy. The more often I ask this question and the closer I can come to one core focus, the more productive I am.

Day-to-day, I use a similar but broader context of focusing on the 3 Most Important Tasks (MITs), which is a commonly recommended approach. I personally have MITs for the year, MITs for the week,and MITs for each workday, which all tie together. Having 3 “must do” things a day keeps me focused on making sure I don’t get distracted by incoming action items, emails and other noise. I try to get them done as early in the day as possible, ideally first thing.

If you are not sure which are your 3 most important tasks, you can use a technique called the “Eisenhower Box” to sort them. It’s a very simple concept: a 2×2 grid with Important/Not Important on one axis and Urgent/Not Urgent on the other. The meaning of the quadrants are pretty straightforward:

  1. Not Important / Not Urgent – Tasks to eliminate
  2. Not Important / Urgent – Tasks to spend as little time as possible on (or delegate if possible)
  3. Important / Urgent – Where most people spend their time
  4. Important / Not Urgent –  Where most people should be spending their time

I’ve found that most of the truly meaningful impacts that we make fall in the “Important / Not Urgent” quadrant. Exercise is a simple example of one of these items. If you don’t exercise, nothing bad will happen immediately or even in the near future, but it is well recognized that it is needed for long term health.  A simple goal is to increase the amount of time spent on these activities. I aim for 30% of my time here. Ideally, it would be more like 50%, but if I can keep it above 25%, I can see material progress on my key objectives.

How to deal with incoming requests

To spend appropriate time on your key wants, you need to be able to keep the rest of the world in line while you do so. There are plenty of organizational systems out there, but I have had the most success with David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which is essentially:

  1. Will it take less than 2 minutes? If so, do it now
  2. Are you really the best person to do it? If not, delegate it to someone else (and do it now)
  3. Defer for now – either schedule time when it will be done or put it on your “to do” list

If it is not actionable, then there are 3 possibilities:

  1. It is not needed – trash it
  2. It is reference material (you might need to look this up at some point) – file it in a good system
  3. It’s a maybe/someday item – add it to an “ideas” list that you check periodically

Then, once a week, look at your overall lists of projects and actions to make sure you have everything (thoughts, ideas, projects, to do’s) captured in one of those categories.

There is a bit more to it than that, but this gives you the basic idea. Many similar systems exist, which one you use doesn’t particularly matter. What matters is that you have a system and use it.

Check Up Question: “How much offense am I playing (vs defense)?”

Offense is when you are doing things on your agenda. Defense is when you are doing things on someone else’s agenda. Look back over your activities this past week. How much time was on offense? This is a good “check up” question you can ask yourself periodically.

Here are some other general tips and tricks I use:

Email Scanning

Email is by far the biggest drain of time in the corporate world. When scanning email, I find it useful to use the following filters:

  • Look for what action you must take, including date/deadline
  • If there is one, check that it meets the following CLEAR requirements:
    • Connected to current projects
    • Lists next steps – what to do
    • Expectations are clear – what does success look like?
    • Ability to execute – you know how to get it done
    • Return – What’s in it for me? (WIIFM)

If there is no action or the action is not clear, it is not particularly useful. Be smart, but I’ve found there is a high probability that you can ignore the email.

This is also useful when you are writing an email that requires action from others. Make sure you hit all the CLEAR requirements to increase the likelihood that the recipient will actually do it.

Meetings

For those of you who work in a typical corporation, meetings tend to be the second biggest drain of time. The first question to ask is why are you attending the meeting? Often the same thing can be accomplished with a quick phone call or email. I find that there are only a few types of meetings that deserve attendance, in order of importance:

  1. Outcome Driven (Brainstorming/discussion or decision making that can’t be done over email)
  2. Relationship Building (Building your network and relationships)
  3. Information Sharing (Although consider if there is a more efficient way to get the information, such as reading the material)
  4. Required/mandatory (Ideally these should not exist, although they tend to in the corporate environment. First check your assumption – why do you assume it’s mandatory? Can you catch up later with someone who did attend?) 

If you can’t figure out which one it is, my advice is don’t go.

Even if you know why you are attending a meeting, you should also filter based on how well run the meeting is. Does it have clear objectives and material with action items and follow ups as appropriate? If not, you can talk to the organizer to make sure that it does going forward. If it still doesn’t happen, avoid the meeting if possible.

Speed things up

Given the prevalence of email and computer-based activities, two simple things you can do are: 1) learn to touch type (go for 50 words per minute or greater) and 2) for any repetitive actions, learn or create keyboard shortcuts (I use a lot of them in Outlook, since that’s where I spend the majority of my computer-based work time).

Know What Not to Do

If there are items that you tend to do, but know you shouldn’t, you can create a “not to do” list. Just like a todo list, you keep this with you and check it occasionally. Only in this case,you want to make sure you aren’t spending time on any activities that are on the list.

Want to learn more?

Here are a few resources you can check out if you want to explore this idea further: